Human groups have finite resources. There’s also a limited amount of assistance, admiration, and respect a group can offer. So we all compete for it. We are in an eternal struggle to increase our access to those resources. Our relative access to resources, aid, and respect has a simpler name: our status.
Obviously, status is important. Without those resources, humans just can’t survive. And with more of those resources, we can do more than just survive. We can flourish. And by flourish, I mean “have lots of babies.” You can invest those extra resources in your children, increasing the chance they make it to adulthood.
Given the benefit status confers on reproduction, might we have evolved to want to increase it? It seems easy to imagine how an individual with a greater drive for status would increase their access to resources, and so benefit their offspring. But would these benefits have been pronounced in our evolutionary past? Hunter-gatherers are famously egalitarian (to an extent). Would status-seeking still evolve in them?
New research says your first reaction was right: yes, it likely did.
Status in hunter-gatherers
The idea that our drive to increase status evolved isn’t new. The benefits associated with it have been known about for a while. But the stumbling block to this hypothesis has been hunter-gatherers. Their society is structured in a much more egalitarian manner than most modern ones. As such, resources tend to be shared more equitably, regardless of one’s social standing.
Given that humans have been hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, this could remove much of the incentive for status-increasing to evolve. Or at least, that’s what many people thought. As I spoiled earlier, it turns out that having better social standing still gives you a benefit if you’re a hunter-gatherer.
Actually, I didn’t spoil it. These results were actually there all along. All it took was for someone to examine the dozens of studies on the subject to identify that there really was a relationship in hunter-gatherers. Anthropologists had been reporting on it the whole time, but there was variation between groups. This caused doubt over whether the effect was real. It took reading the whole body of literature to find that, despite this variation, male hunter-gatherers with high status had more babies.
And the same was true of farmers and herders with a high social standing as well.
This persistent relationship between social standing and reproductive success means it’s been influencing men for a long time. So it seems much more likely that the drive to increase this standing evolved. Particularly given the effect is extra strong in the non-human primates we evolved from.
Why is status good?
All of this raises the question: why is it good to have a high social standing? To be fair, it’s not exactly a hard question to answer. Odds are you could come up with all sorts of reasons why high social status would help men have more babies. But just because you can think of a plausible explanation doesn’t make it true. So when examining all this literature on status, sex, and babies, the researchers also examined what benefits were associated with high status.
As the chart indicates, the answer was “all of the above”. Just about every aspect of reproduction – from fertility to wife quality – was better for individuals with higher social standing. Interestingly, which aspects benefitted the most were different in polygynous and monogamous societies.
This provides further evidence that the drive to increase social standing likely evolved. It shows it’s a benefit in different mating systems, as well as different social systems (hunter-gatherer etc.). The fact the benefits of high standing are so pervasive suggests it has been influencing men, everywhere, for generations. Regardless of culture or survival strategy.
High status didn’t evolve
At this point, it’s worth adding some caveats. This research didn’t find that people evolved to be high-status. Rather, they evolved to want to increase their status. There’s a key difference. Mostly because the former is actually impossible.
What makes someone socially dominant can change dramatically within a generation. The ideals your parents strived for probably aren’t the same as yours. So even if your lineage had somehow evolved to be the perfect 1960s husband, that probably wouldn’t do you much good now. What makes someone “high status” doesn’t really last long enough to drive evolution.
The other big caveat is that all of this is that this research only examined men. That’s not to say that women didn’t experience similar pressures to increase their social standing. Or even that the drive to do so in them didn’t evolve. It simply wasn’t examined in the scope of this research. Hopefully, further research rectifies this issue.
The drive for men to increase their social status seems to be universal. This is a key indication it evolved. New research reveals why: it increases your reproductive success. Higher social standing is linked to everything from higher wife quality to fertility. Crucially, this work also shows that this drive for status has been influencing men for a long time. Long enough for it to have evolved.
von Rueden, C.R. and Jaeggi, A.V., 2016. Men’s status and reproductive success in 33 nonindustrial societies: Effects of subsistence, marriage system, and reproductive strategy.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(39), pp.10824-10829.